The Oral History of the Controversial Mickey Mouse Short That Freaked Out Disney
For most of Mickey Mouse’s history, Disney has played it safe. While Warner Bros. could have Bugs Bunny essentially commit acts of domestic terrorism, Mickey’s position as corporate mascot caused Disney to use far more caution. If they weren’t absolutely sure about having Mickey star in something, they’d abandon the project entirely.
It’s because of this sensitivity — and, to be fair, a decline in theatrical cartoons thanks to the introduction of television — that Mickey didn’t star in a traditional theatrical short for over 40 years. Although 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol and 1990’s The Prince and the Pauper were released in theaters, both were over 20 minutes long, a far cry from the traditional theatrical shorts that originally made Mickey famous. For decades, the last of those shorts was 1953’s The Simple Things, until a new one was finally created in 1995. However, Disney got so spooked by the darkly funny, horror-themed short that they barely supported the finished product and didn’t have Mickey star in another short until 2013.
1995’s Runaway Brain is about a teenage Mickey who, desperate for cash to fund a vacation with Minnie, signs up to be a lab rat (mouse?). After seeing an ad in the classified section, he reports to the laboratory of Dr. Frankenollie — played by Kelsey Grammer — who hooks Mickey up to a brain-swapping machine with a gigantic Frankenstein-like monster. Dr. Frankenollie literally dies during the experiment, and Mickey spends the rest of the short in the monster’s body as his is possessed by the vicious monster who becomes lovestruck by Minnie.
While the brain swap only carries two minutes of the seven-minute short, all the cartoon’s (minuscule) promotional imagery featured the rabid-looking, jagged-toothed, monster-brained Mickey, who, to put it mildly, didn’t quite fit the corporate mousecot’s squeaky-clean image.
In the years since its release, Runaway Brain has gained a reputation as the “banned” or “forbidden” Mickey short, but it’s more accurate to say that it suffered from a conspicuous lack of support. It was released with the box-office bomb A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and future re-release plans were scrapped until it was nominated for an Oscar. In 1997, the short was attached to the successful George of the Jungle live-action film. But even an Oscar nod and a run with a hit film didn’t change Disney’s mind. Some overseas merchandise was released, but nearly nothing was sold here in the U.S. — a very telling move for the capitalist conglomerate that is Disney. Things haven’t changed over time either, as it was released on just one DVD of collected Mickey shorts and still isn’t available on Disney+.
So, while it isn’t quite “banned,” Runaway Brain was certainly controversial, especially in the minds of the suits at Disney. Below, the team tasked with convincing corporate of the short’s merit tell the runaway tale of how it came to be so infamous — inadvertently or otherwise…
Todd Kurosawa, storyboard artist on Runaway Brain: Runaway Brain was supposed to be for Mickey’s 65th birthday celebration in 1993. They were originally going to do four shorts with the standard characters, but it got to the point where it was going to be too expensive, so they just did one. Even with just one though, we still missed the birthday celebration by two years.
Chris Bailey, director of Runaway Brain: Pretty much everyone at Disney Features Animation, at some point, was assigned to develop Mickey cartoons. Disney would want a cartoon for the anniversary of that or the birthday of this, but for a long, long time, they just never got made. There was a lot of paralysis back then about “What would Mickey Mouse do?” Would Mickey run a convenience store? Is that Mickey? Can Mickey run a Brooks Brothers-like suit outlet? They’d just go around and around, and nothing would ever happen.
But people kept getting assigned to work on Mickey shorts, and in the early 1990s, I was in-between features and was told to develop Mickey ideas. I was developing cartoons with writer Tim Hauser, and I’d just sit in my office, doing crazy drawings of Mickey, then Tim would come in and be inspired by one. Or he’d show me an outline, and I’d be inspired by that.
One day, he came in and picked up this drawing I did and said, “What’s this? This is funny.” It was this drawing I did where I was channeling Calvin from Cavin and Hobbes when Calvin pretends he’s Godzilla. But for Mickey, I just thought it was funny. I didn’t know what it was, but that sparked something in Tim, and he went off and developed the idea for Runaway Brain.
When it came time to pitch Runaway Brain to (chairman) Jeffrey Katzenberg and (animation executives) Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, it was pitched along with five other cartoons. There was Tourist Trap and a Ghostbusters-like cartoon with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in a haunted house. It’s been so long that I don’t remember the other three.
Anyway, they liked Runaway Brain, but Tourist Trap was selected first. Tourist Trap was a take on an unproduced Roger Rabbit cartoon I was going to direct where Baby Herman was trying to kill Roger Rabbit so he could star in his own shorts. I decided to recycle that idea to a “What if?” idea where Donald had just had it with being a second-class citizen, so, while they’re on vacation, he’d kill Mickey and make it look like an accident. I can’t believe they went for Tourist Trap at all, but when they finally saw it, it played pretty flat because the idea had been watered-down so that Donald wasn’t really trying to kill Mickey. I said to (executive) Roy Disney, “I don’t think this works unless Donald really is trying to kill Mickey, so why don’t we go back to Runaway Brain?” So, I was put to work on Runaway Brain.
During the development, Runaway Brain was being pulled in two different directions. Tom and Peter were more conservative, while Jeffrey wanted to be more extreme. For example, at one point, instead of Mickey playing that Mortal Kombat-like game that’s in the final short, we pitched the idea that he’s playing a hunting game where he had this rifle connected to the game console, and shooting characters like Flower and Thumper from Bambi. I remember Peter saying, “Not a chance in hell.” So, it went back to the Mortal Kombat-like game with Dopey fighting the Queen from Snow White.
It was a tricky balance because Jeffrey didn’t want to make a cartoon someone could mistake for something they just dug out of the vault. He wanted something modern. Runaway Brain was clearly not something from the vault. It was edgy, and Mickey’s this guy who’s 18 and loves video games, and he forgot it was his anniversary with Minnie. He’s much more modern. Although, I did base it somewhat on The Mad Doctor, a darker Mickey short from 1933, where a mad scientist is experimenting on Pluto. That cartoon was almost like Dragon’s Lair, with Mickey fighting his way through this castle. I wanted to do a short with that Mickey, and I’m lucky I got to.
Kurosawa: Chris wanted to go back to the action Mickey, not the corporate Mickey. Mickey had become very boring, and he wanted to make him fun again. It was a lot of fun working on this too, because, during the story development, it was just three or four story guys pitching gags to each other. It was mostly me, James Fujii and Kirk Hanson, and we did all these Tex Avery takes with Mickey, which was something no one was doing with Mickey then. We did stuff like Mickey’s brain popping out, his ears falling off, his head being sliced up. We didn’t get to go that far with it, but it was fun to develop.
One great joke that James Fujii came up with that did make it in was that X-ray gag that shows that Mickey has brains in his ears. That even ended up on the crew jacket! The jacket also had my pose from the storyboards where we first revealed Mickey as the monster.
Bailey: Really, the only reason Runaway Brain got made when it did, or at all, was because they liked it and wanted to make it, and there was this little gap at the French studio Disney had recently acquired before they went into production on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was in Paris for about nine months making this, and we were mostly left alone while doing it. I was really happy with how it came out; it’s an amazing looking cartoon. The French studio and production designer, Ian Gooding, and the head of background, Dan Cooper, did a wonderful job.
Andreas Deja, animation supervisor on Runaway Brain: The French studio had been the ones to do The Goofy Movie for Disney Television, and when Disney saw it, they realized that studio was really good so they decided to make them a part of Disney Feature Animation, not Disney Television Animation because of their high level of skill. They decided to give them a Mickey short first. Several ideas for Mickey had been floating around at that time, and they decided to give them a satire of the old Frankenstein story.
Joey Mildenberger, special effects artist on Runaway Brain: This short was a lot of fun because I got some sweet scenes to animate. Some of my best work is in that short. Like, I got to do Mickey getting electrocuted by Tesla coils. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by what they were letting Chris do with this short — “Disney’s really doing this? They’re allowing this to be made?” A sex-crazed Mickey, frothing at the mouth, chasing Minnie around? Really?
Bailey: Toward the end of production in Paris, Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney. In fact, when Mickey is vacuumed down into the lab of Dr. Frankenollie, you can see a pink slip with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s initials on it. I can’t remember whose idea that was, but it’s very funny. Anyway, after Jeffrey left the studio, it became Tom and Peter’s cartoon, and that’s when it really came to light that it was going too far for them. After we screened it for them, Tom and Peter came to me and said, “Look, we think the cartoon is a little extreme, and we need to take a pass at it.” In retrospect, I could see how it was outside of Tom and Peter’s sensibility, but I didn’t sense any skepticism about it that early on.
After that, a lot of edits were made that, to me, screwed up a lot of the timing. I had to remove shots where the evil Mickey was drooling over Minnie. I also had to change the ending. Originally, the cartoon ended with Mickey throwing Minnie a luau in the backyard, and it was fine, but on the plane ride home before that screening, someone had the idea that Mickey and Minnie would get to Hawaii by riding the monster as he’s chasing this effigy of Minnie made from a pillow hanging from a fishing rod. While the new ending was better, it was felt that it was too salacious to use a woman as bait, so we kept Mickey and Minnie riding him to Hawaii, but he’s chasing the photo of Minnie instead.
When Runaway Brain was complete, they played it with a few different movies, but they only advertised it with A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. When it was released, I got a few responses that were like, “You should never make cartoons like this! This scared my little girl!” Then other people said, “This is the coolest Mickey cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life!” It was 50/50.
Deja: I’d worked on Mickey before for his cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Prince and the Pauper, but this was my very favorite Mickey project. I know it wasn’t shown a lot because of the imagery of Mickey, but we all know he turns back to the regular Mickey in the end. Disney did put it on a DVD collection, so you can get it that way. Hopefully it ends up on Disney+ someday because it really is a hilarious, beautiful cartoon.
Bailey: While there wasn’t a lot of merchandise for the film here, there was some. That little monster Mickey was featured on a snow globe with a bunch of other monster characters and a few other tiny appearances like that. The movie spawned this little cottage industry of Runaway Brain toys in Hong Kong; it was more of a hit over there.
Bailey: There’s also a story out there that, when somebody who worked on the short wore the crew jacket to Disneyland, they were told they had to wear it inside out because they thought it was an underground, unlicensed jacket. I don’t know who this happened to or if it happened at all. It’s become kind of this apocryphal story.
Deja: What happened was, before Runaway Brain came out, I went to Disneyland Paris with a small group of people who had also worked on Runaway Brain, and one of them was wearing the crew jacket, which had the monster Mickey based on one of my drawings on the back. He went into a shop on Main Street and a Disney cast member saw this jacket and she thought it was this counterfeit thing — she thought somebody was dragging the image of Mickey by turning this lovely character into a monster. She really gave him a hard time, saying “You shouldn’t be wearing that! This is terrible!” He tried to tell her, “This is a crew jacket!” But she wouldn’t listen to him. She almost threw him out of the shop. She took it very personally. In a way, it’s nice that she was so protective of the character. She was just doing her job, protecting the company’s icon.
Bailey: I seem to be emphasizing the negative a bit here, but I will say that when Runaway Brain was nominated for an Academy Award, Peter especially was very supportive, saying, “I hope you win!” I never expected it to win, so I was okay when it didn’t. I just enjoyed the whole experience while also being in disbelief that it got nominated at all.
It was also selected to open the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes had never opened with a short before. People like to think there’s this conspiracy to “bury” Runaway Brain and make sure nobody ever sees it. I don’t think it was ever really that. I just think that wasn’t where they wanted Mickey to be. The response was positive, but it was still very clear that this new regime would not be taking Mickey in this direction.
Which, I mean, I get it. I still think it’s marvelous work, and, to be honest, I kind of enjoy the “infamy” of it all. Runaway Brain has made me infamous. And I like that.